There are several arguments often used against sweet wines. ‘They all taste the same’ or ‘after a while you lose all sense of taste because of the sweetness’. To a certain extent these all make sense. When actually put to the test however, they don’t hold up. Even with a single grape variety, grown in a single country or region and vinified in the same way, the differences can be huge. Sweetness can cripple a palate, but a quality wine is a balanced wine. The interaction between acidity and sweetness should not lead to palate fatigue.
Over the last couple of weeks I tasted German sweet wines on several occasions, including a memorable evening in which we took a closer look at older vintages. This was an astonishing exercise. Riesling already has my winelover’s heart, but tasting such different wines all coming from the same variety was terrific. Today I will focus on the younger wines, whereas the spotlight will shift to Riesling from the past century next week.
Tim Fröhlich is one of those rare winemakers who hit the ground running in such a way that they cannot avoid changing the German wine scene. He is the pretender to the Nahe throne alternately occupied by Dönnhoff and Emrich-Schönleber, and while his style can be divisive, he is unanimously respected. He is a major proponent of spontaneous fermentation (the use of wild instead of cultured yeasts) and late harvesting, often taking risks that other winemakers would shun, but somehow pulling it off. Felseneck Spätlese 2013 shows an almost unattainable elegance, with mere hints of aromas at first. Herbal notes, white Japanese peaches, lemon zest and even a bit of honey. Surprisingly little sweetness on the tongue given the 80g/l of residual sugar, but a mouthwatering, almost saline acidity. This oozes class but comes across quite tight, definitely not ready to show what it is capable of. To tuck away for 15 to 20 years!
Many consider the Mosel to be the benchmark for German sweet. Oddly enough, it’s not the sweetness but the acidity that makes these wines unique. Sweetness and residual sugar levels can be controlled up to a certain point. Acidity and the structure it brings to a wine, are inherently linked to the grape variety, soil and climate. The Mosel is one of the coldest regions in Germany, home to the steepest slopes of slate that are a match made in heaven with Riesling. The Trittenheimer Apotheke 2011 Spätlese from Eva Clüsserath fell a bit short in our tasting but changed into a completely different wine on the second day. Pure, flinty minerality on the nose, clear signs of spontaneous fermentation. Acidity-driven on the palate with ripe apples, zestiness and just a touch of sweetness. Still young but already extremely enjoyable, it is a righteous display of the ethereal lightness that you can only achieve in the Mosel.
We are staying in the region, but now we move one of the Mosel’s tributaries, the Ruwer. The first village you encounter when following the river upstream is Eitelsbach, home to Karthäuserhof. The estate’s peculiarity is that all their wines are sourced from only one vineyard, the Karthäuserhofberg, which is fully owned by Karthäuserhof, making it one of the largest ’monopole’ vineyards in Germany. The Riesling Auslese 2010 has 8.5% alcohol, slightly higher than Schafer-Frohlich’s Spätlese at 7.5% which actually results in a lower level of residual sugar at 70g/l despite the fact that the wine has a different Prädikat. Surprisingly, it comes across a lot sweeter, owning up to its classification with apricots, pineapples and almost exotic fruit scents. It is quite heady, a hint of smokiness that is nowhere to be found on the palate. It comes across very clean but the acidity is markedly lower than expected. This is one for cellaring in the hopes that it will lose the overt sweet tones, or one to combine now with a spicy Indian curry.
Thanks to the Belgian importer, I had the opportunity to taste Am Stein’s Stettener Stein Eiswein 2012. People who have been following this blog from the beginning will be familiar with this estate so I’ll cut right to the chase and state that this is just fabulous. As stated last week, 2012 was the last year in which Eiswein was possible all throughout Germany, with harvest at Am Stein taking place on the 10th of December at -12° C. Half a hectare (little over an acre) resulted in a mere 500 liter wine! An astonishing 170° Oechsle (215g/l) means that you’re in for the sugar high of a lifetime but luckily you do not need a lot for instant gratification. An exotically perfumed nose, mango, papaya, passion fruit, everything just coming straight at you. The palate is luscious, on the verge of syrupy but just at the right time you hit a wall of thrilling acidity that restores balance, ending on a fresh, long-lingering note of pure fruit. Getting your grapes unaffected by noble rot to December is quite a feat, and Am Stein has pulled it off with this one. Taking into account all the work that goes in it, the risk that the winemaker has to take and the absolutely stunning wine that you get, this would be the first wine at 60 euros that I would call a bargain!
Sweet Riesling in its youth is often accused of being nothing but exotic fruit, but the four wines presented here show that it can be so much more. All kinds of fruit, different interactions with acidity and minerality, changing aromas and impressions, there is such a wide range of styles that saying its just exotic fruitiness is blatantly superficial. All these wines are already enjoyable but show so much more potential to the future, let’s put some of their companions to the test next week!